Amazon Tribes Win Against Big Oil
In the Amazon rainforests of Peru and Ecuador, indigenous groups are on the front lines of the climate change battle.
Communities in both countries bear the brunt of demand for oil and gas resources buried in the rainforests. The Amazon is one of the world’s most significant “carbon sinks,” and when resource-extraction industries destroy forests to make way for roads, drilling, and pipelines, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. In Ecuador, toxic dumping by oil giant Texaco has also created deadly pollution that locals say has caused cancer rates to soar.
Native groups in both countries have scored recent victories, but at great cost.
In Bagua in northern Peru, demonstrators blocked a road in protest of new laws that would have eased the process for foreign companies to acquire land title and road-building rights-of-way in the Amazon. The protest erupted into a confrontation with police on June 5 that left dozens of demonstrators dead. International outcry over the deaths forced Peruvian President Alan Garcia to rescind two of the nine laws in question.
On July 21, James Anaya, U.N. Special Rapporteur on indigenous rights, called for an independent investigation of the events in Peru. Activists have accused the Peruvian government of attempting to destroy the powerful indigenous organization AIDESEP, whose leader, Alberto Pizango, has been accused of sedition and is currently in exile in Nicaragua.
Meanwhile, Ecuadorian communities have won a ruling against Chevron Corp., which owns Texaco. Their 16-year-old, $27.3-billion liability suit concerns Texaco’s nearly three decades of activity in the Lago Agria area of the Amazon, during which, plaintiffs say, the company dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into the rainforest. Chevron merged with Texaco in 2001 and has been fighting the case in both Ecuador and the U.S. On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out an appeal by Chevron to shift the liability to Ecuador’s state-owned oil company.
Demonstrators in both Ecuador and Peru have received an outpouring of international support. Images of the Peruvian massacre circulated online, galvanizing supporters, who held demonstrations in South America, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe in solidarity with the Amazon activists.
Activists have lobbied for alternatives to free trade agreements that require governments in developing nations to loosen restrictions on natural resource exploitation. The decrees that led to the Peruvian protests were a response to the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement.
Chevron has also tried to use trade agreements to retaliate against Ecuador. Four U.S. senators—Ron Wyden, Robert P. Casey, Jr., Dick Durbin, and Patrick Leahy—recently urged the U.S. Trade Representative to reject Chevron’s plea to deny trade benefits to Ecuador.
—Lisa Garrigues is a YES! contributing editor.
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Amanda McKenzie, organizer with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. McKenzie and 1,500 youths met in Sydney, Australia, in July to learn how to stage direct action to pressure government leaders to address climate change.